Calixto Bieito – run in terror! Actually don’t, because he’s on his best behaviour for this Carmen. He’s toned down his shock tactics and created a production that does full justice to the work. Ok, there is some sex and violence, and a bit of gratuitous naked bullfighting, but by this man’s standards it’s all very tame. He’s updated it, of course, to the Spain of the 1970s, suggesting an array of contemporary resonances. This is the production’s first revival at ENO since it opened in 2012 (the revival director is Joan Anton Rechi) and it is clearly worth a second look. The drama remains fresh with a largely new cast, and the musical side is expertly handled by conductor Richard Armstrong. But there are too few outstanding voices here, and vocally the production remains serviceable at best.

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Bieito’s 70s setting has the effect of stripping away much of the twee folksiness of the libretto. In particular, we are confronted with modern, real and very gritty gypsies, a very different proposition to the semi-mythical free spirits Bizet envisaged. Seventies Spain suggests Franco, but there is little in the way of political subtext, if at all it is suggested in the brutality of the troops. More significantly, Bieito has reclaimed Carmen for Spain, a real Spain of living memory. Bizet’s projections of Spanish culture are addressed and tempered, but not rejected out of hand. Bieito draws on all the idealised images in the work, he brings them down to earth, and although the piece becomes more realistic as a result, somehow it retains its magic.

The sets are simple. The parade square of the first act is represented by only a flagpole and a telephone box, the latter used for Carmen’s grand entrance. For the second and third acts, battered old cars are wheeled onto the stage, all much abused as the drama plays out. And for Act 4, the large chorus constitutes the majority of the stage furniture, until Escamillo brushes them aside to draw the chalk circle of the bull ring on the ground, becoming the arena in which Carmen and Don José’s final encounter will play out. That huge chorus is a key feature of this production, and is well used dramatically to represent troops, gypsies, smugglers and spectators, the blocking always dynamic and the many bodies always justifying their presence. The chorus struggled to keep some of the Act 1 music together, but unified into a strong musical presence later on. An excellent children’s chorus too; theirs was probably the clearest diction of the evening.

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In the title role, we heard Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte. She has an extraordinary voice, husky and rich, slightly nasal but well projected, and utterly unique. It’s certainly seductive, and dramatic too. Her English in unaccented when she speaks but her diction is less clear when she sings. Still, a convincing performance that just about carried the show.

Most of the supporting cast act well but give less impressive vocal performances. As Don José, Eric Cutler is an imposing physical presence, and he evokes much empathy for the conflicted and ultimately doomed character. Vocally, he is similarly impassioned, but his voice lacks the necessary support, and many of the longer phrases tail off and wander under the pitch towards the end.

Eleanor Dennis makes her role debut as Micaëla. This too is a fine piece of dramatic casting, and the contrast between her demure and skittish stage presence and Gringyte’s confident Carmen could not be sharper. But her vocal production is uneven, strong and secure at the top, but less so lower down, and indistinct in her ornaments and runs. Graeme Danby and George Humphreys are both suitably imposing as the Zuniga and Morales, the army lieutenant and corporal, though neither has the properly commanding voice that can make these roles shine. Among the supporting cast, the one ray of light is Leigh Melrose as Escamillo. This versatile singer and actor can seemingly turn his talents to any role, and this bravura bullfighter is no exception. What a shame Bizet and his librettists didn’t do more with the character.

Richard Armstrong leads a focussed and controlled account of the score, too controlled perhaps, given the music’s regular flourishes and outbursts. On top of the musical demands, he also has to co-ordinate many of the actions on the stage precisely to the music. He also does a good job of making the work flow and maintaining the dramatic continuity across each act. The set pieces are all given their due, but this never feels like a number opera. It is great to see the conductor and director working so closely to bring the music and drama into alignment, and the sheer unity of intent is one of this production’s greatest strengths. A strong show, let down only by patchy vocal casting.

3 stars

Gavin Dixon

(Photos : Alastair Muir)

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